By Israel Libenzon
There were Jews in Keidan as early as the 15th century. Keidan attracted traders mainly owing to its big annual fair. From that time, the number of Jews increased from year to year, and the community began to organize itself. But in 1495, a decree was issued by the Grand Prince Alexander that all Jews had to leave Lithuania and leave all their property behind. In 1503, Alexander issued a new decree permitting the Jews to return and reclaim their property.
In 1590, Keidan obtained Magdeburg rights, granting it autonomy and self-rule. Commerce began to flourish in the town, in no small measure thanks to the Jews. By this time, fairs were held three times a year. Prince Radziwill (17th century) wanted to increase the Jewish population of Keidan in order to develop trade, and granted the Jews full civil rights and religious freedom. It is believed that Jews who had been exiled from Scotland came to Keidan, among them many weavers, who developed the weaving handicraft there. By the beginning of the 19th century, the weaving trade was entirely in Jewish hands. Prince Radziwill had allocated the Jews their own quarter, where they could develop various handicrafts. Jewish experts in various professions were a source of pride for Radziwill.
In 1646, Radziwill built the first windmill and leased it to the Jews. In 1650, a printing house was established in Keidan; a paper mill had been established a few years prior. Among others, the printing house published the first Book of Psalms in the Lithuanian language. My sources do not specify whether the Jews had a part in these industries.
The Jewish tradespeople in Keidan were organized into guilds, as were the non-Jews. In 1652 Radziwill issued a decree requiring Jewish butchers, slaughterers and traders in beef cattle to form a guild. In addition, the Jews were authorized to collect debts from Christians by selling their debtors’ homes, in the event that the debtors’ belongings did not cover their debts.
By the second half of the 17th century, the Jews occupied an important place in the economy of Keidan. They were engaged mainly in the wine trade, in import and export, in farming, in miscellaneous businesses and in moneylending. The honey industry in Keidan, which was developed by Jews, became famous throughout Lithuania and Poland.
In 1659, the first bridge over the Neviazhe (Nevežis) was built, and the business of collecting tolls for crossing it was leased to a Jew. Boguslaw Radziwill, who spent most of his time outside Keidan, leased all his Keidan holdings to the Jews. In 1665, he leased the palace, the grounds, and a large portion of the income to a Jew by the name of Wolf Isakovich.
Judging from the per-capita tax, we can learn that the economic situation of the Keidan Jewish community at the beginning of the 18th century was quite good, ranking third in Lithuania, and by far surpassing even those of Vilna and Minsk.
In 1804, the Russian Czar Alexander I issued an order to expel Jews from the villages. At that time, many unemployed village Jews came to Keidan. As a result of this exile, the number of tavern owners and shopkeepers in Keidan multiplied, and the former villagers began engaging in fruit and vegetable farming on leased lands, selling their produce in the surrounding area.
In 1868, the Russians placed two artillery batteries in Keidan, creating an income source for shopkeepers and tradesmen. A rail line that was built then also contributed to the economic development of the city.
With the government’s assumption of a monopoly on alcohol in 1897, the taverns in Keidan, all but one of which had been run by Jews, were closed, leaving their owners without livelihoods.
Between 1900 and the exile in 1915, and from the end of World War I, when the exiled returned home, Keidan’s Jews engaged in the aforementioned occupations. A dividing line cannot be drawn between the pre- and post-war periods, as after the war, most people returned to their previous occupations.
Keidan was known regionally and throughout Lithuania for its cucumbers. The families Landsberg, Even, Kagan and others grew cucumbers and other vegetables on large plots in and around Keidan. In 1931 Dr. S. Sapìr, then manager of the Jewish People’s Bank, published a study on agriculture in Keidan in the Yiddish Voice in Kovno. According to this study, about 70 families were engaged in growing cucumbers and other vegetables, of whom 21 engaged solely in agriculture, 23 engaged mainly in agriculture, and 24 engaged in it as a side income.
The area used for growing cucumbers and other produce changed from year to year. In 1929, it occupied 83 hectares [205 acres]; in 1930, 105 hectares [259 acres]; and in 1931, 160 hectares [395 acres]. Note that the area used to grow cucumbers and other vegetables in the whole of Lithuania (except for Kovno) was only 500-600 hectares total. Therefore, the area of the Keidan growers constituted about a quarter of all of Lithuania’s vegetable-producing land. About 92% of it was used for growing cucumbers, and the rest for tomatoes and other vegetables. Only a small percentage of this land was owned by the growers; most was leased from estate owners or from other area farmers.
Keidan cucumbers were sold in the large urban markets throughout Lithuania, including those of Memel [Klaipėda], Shavel [Šiauliai], Telz [Telšiai], Janishok [Joniškis], Rakishok [Rokiškis], and Krottingen [Kretinga]. Before World War I, Keidan cucumbers were also shipped to Riga and Libau [Liepaja], Latvia. The unit of sale was known as a shok, equal to 60 cucumbers. The cucumber season lasted only 4-5 months, during which growers employed about 700 male and female workers for the harvest, in addition to wagon drivers for delivery to market.
Relatively large wholesalers operated in Keidan in the following industries:
– Foodstuffs, or colonial merchandise, as this industry was referred to in those times. Sugar and salt were imported by the rail carload from the Ukraine; and herring from England and Norway. The main consumers of this merchandise were the villagers and their cooperatives. Note that this business of colonial merchandise was managed by Keidan merchants on a large scale, and it sometimes was economical for merchants in Ponevezh [Panevėžys], Raseyn [Raseiniai], Yanova [Jonava], and even Shavel [Šiauliai] to purchase it from Keidan wholesalers instead of importing it directly from the source.
An incident connected to a shipment of sugar from Keidan to merchants in Raseyn during World War I, which could have ended tragically. A few days before the [Jewish] exile in 1915, the Germans seized some wagons bringing sugar to Raseyn. The Russians accused the cargo owners, Yosef Wolpert and Associates, of shipping foodstuffs to the Germans. Wolpert and his family hurried out of town even before the exile, as the Russians threatened to hang him as a traitor.
The main businesses in the foodstuffs industry were owned by Yosef Wolpert and Associates, founded at the close of the 19th century by Reb Leizer Wolpert, a learned man and admirer of Theodor Herzl, and his son, Yosef. Zalman Frank was a partner in this business; and Feingold, who in addition to his textile business, was a big sugar wholesaler. Other major wholesalers in this business were Yaakov Wolpert and Yosef Blumzon.
– Petroleum products. About 15 Jews were partners in a large depot of petroleum products such as kerosene, heavy fuel oil, and gasoline, located at Keidan’s train station. As many as 20 rail tanks of petroleum imported from Russia could be stored at the depot, which supplied petroleum to the entire area, including surrounding towns.
– Haberdashery. The main wholesalers in this industry were Upnitzky-Wolpert and Yosef Lichtenstein.
– Textiles. The Ginzburg brothers and Tzipe Greenhaus.
Wheat, rye, and oats were grown successfully on plots around Keidan, and the trade there was almost entirely in Jewish hands. From 1932 to 1940, Dov Toker coordinated grain exports, mainly that of clover seed from around Keidan, which was in great demand in many countries. Other grain merchants were Michael and Abba Friedland, Zang, and Tzadok Shlapobersky.
The export of poultry — chickens, turkeys, and mainly geese to Germany for Christmas — was also concentrated in Jewish hands.
Rawhide and rag export
Zundel Ginzburg was a major exporter of these.
Keidan’s Jews were also active in apple exports.
Industry in Keidan
Before World War I and between the two world wars, there were many factories and workshops in Keidan. The most important ones were:
Brothers Moshe-Ze’ev and Eliyahu-Dov Kagan had a tanning factory and sold leather goods, employing about 100 workers. Their products were sold in Russia.
Benyamin Bavilsky, tannery workshop, employed about 20 workers, as did Miller, a German.
The Winik brothers ran the “Vilkas” furriery.
The Shlapobersky brothers had a steam-powered flour mill, later passed on to the Gel brothers.
Goldin ran a hydro-powered mill, leased from Count Totleben for many years until the Holocaust.
Yitzhak Stung & Miller, and thereafter Shisiansky, ran the mill at Vilein [Vilainiai], Count Totleben’s estate.
Radzevičius, a Lithuanian, ran a diesel-powered electric power station and flour mill, against whom a suit was brought for setting the Vilein mill on fire to harm his competitor, for which he was sentenced to several years in prison.
Gel Brothers, log cutting and lumber milling
Movshovitz & Kagan
Israelov, wines produced from apples and other fruits
Zalman Lifshitz, Melnik, Levin
Tuber and others
Blacksmiths and carriage makers
Benyamin Bavilsky brickworks
Cucumbers and sauerkraut
Smilg, Tzadok Shlapobersky, and others were involved in producing these from vegetables grown in Keidan.
Keidan had one mechanically operated matzo factory.
Keidan also had carpentries, upholsterers, saddleries and other workshops.
The People’s Bank (Folksbank) was established in Keidan after World War I, about 1921, by the Association of People’s Banks in Lithuania. In the years 1928-1934, Dr. S. Sapìr served as manager, and according to his memory the bank had about 500 members. The bank served as an important source of funding, particularly for ordinary people – cucumber growers, craftsmen and small business owners. No details concerning its balance sheet or the scope or its activities have remained.
In 1926-27, a group of business owners headed by Zundel Gurvich established a mutual aid bank. Its members were mostly active Zionists. No Keidaners currently in Israel have any information on the activities of this bank.
Translated by Miriam Erez.
 Dates in original Hebrew text are incorrectly given as 1595 and 1603.